Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Perils of Gnosticism

I'm back! And no better way to herald my return than with a take down of the increasing-popular Gnostic approach to Christianity, evidenced by the recent furore over the Gospel of Judas and the staggering popularity of the Da Vinci Code. In what follows, I lean heavily on an excellent little book by N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, entitled Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity?

First things first. What is Gnosticism? Well, Gnosticism is an alternative approach to Christianity, echoes of which have been with us since the earliest days of the Church. But its approach is by no means unique to Christianity. At its heart lies a Platonic metaphysical dualism that sees the world and all of creation as evil. Since creation is evil, it cannot have been created by a benevolent God. No, the creator is an evil God, a demiurge, often identified with the God of the Jews. Beyond all this lies a greater God, a good God. And here is the crux: within every human being lies a "spark of the divine" that is itching to be re-united with this greater God and escape the confines of the evil materialistic world. And how to escape? Escape comes through knowledge, gnosis, often hidden esoteric knowledge available only to a select few. In some variants of Gnosticism, a revealer from the true God is needed to come and point the way toward salvation, where salvation is defined as liberation from the material world.

And what of the gospel of Judas? It is simply an exercise in pure Gnosticism: Jesus needed to die to escape the evil materialistic world, and Judas was the only one with the gnosis to realize this. Hence he had to facilitate his death. The other apostles were basically morons, and Jesus laughed at them (astonishingly, this condescending mockery is used as evidence by Gnostic defenders that this Jesus is more human, with a sense of humor).

Now, if you want to believe this, fine, but it must be acknowledged that it has precious little to do with historic Christianity, and that to claim otherwise is simply wishful thinking. But this is what a small subset of (typically American) researchers are trying to do: to claim that Gnosticism was the true message of Christ, suppressed by a hierarchical church mainly concerned with its own political survival. Even a superficial knowledge of early Christianity should put a lie to these claims. The canonical gospels were written and circulated between 60-100 AD, whereas the Gnostic tracts are clearly second century creations at best. And far from trying to maintain their own political power, many of the Christian leaders at the time suffered terrible persecution and martyrdom, a fate not shared by their Gnostic compatriots.

For here is the rub: Gnosticism was merely an attempt to make Christianity compatible with the prevailing religious ethos of the time: a world full of esoteric and mystery cults that provided no threat whatsoever to the prevailing political authority. But Christianity was different, and perceived as a major threat. As Wright demonstrates with conviction, the dawning "Jesus movement" was based on a very Jewish notion of history, one which proclaimed the coming of a messiah who would make things right in the the world, as the "kingdom of God" arrived. But as anybody at the time would have recognized, there was aleady an established "good news" or "gospel" out there and his name was Caesar. The threat is clear. As Wright puts it, the goal of salvation is the "remaking of the good God-given created universe, and the resurrection of the body for those who have died, so that they can share in the world that has been put to rights." This challenges authority; Gnosticism does not.

But Gnosticism continues to tempt. Why? I'll get to that it a moment. But first, let's pull apart the notion that Gnosticism is superior to orthodox Christianity:

*First, real Gnosticism is fundamentally anti-semitic. Orthodox Christianity began as a Jewish sect, with definably Jewish characteristics and a Jewish eschatological outlook. Gnosticism sees the God of the Jews as evil, or at best stupid, thus casting a spear through the entire basis of Jewish faith.

*Second, Gnosticism is elitist. Whereas orthodox Christianity opened to door to everybody, only a select few were worthy enough to receive the necessary wisdom of the Gnostic cults.

*Third, Gnosticism is not a more "tolerant" religion. One of the most laughable treatises in the Da Vinci Code is that the Gnostic tracts viewed Jesus as human, and thus offered a less "dogmatic" message. But Gnosticism sees the created world as pure evil! For this reason, in many of the Gnostic tracts, Jesus is little more than a ghost (since the body is evil). In the Gospel of Judas, he is struggling to cast off his body. Despite it modern liberal fans, much of Gnosticism was ascetic in nature, loathing the flesh, and expressing disgust with all aspects of sexuality. As for women, Gnosticism most certainly did not offer any advantages-- in one famous Gnostic saying, Jesus claimed that he would "save" Mary Magdalene by turning her into a man! And of course, if the body is evil, then suicide can easily be justified....

Why is this approach to Christianity so popular? Is the message that Jesus essentially committed suicide because his body was evil really a more positive message that the traditional Christian one of forgiveness and renewal? No, something else is at stake here. In one of the most fascinating aspects of his book, Wright contends that Gnosticism strikes a chord in modern American life, especially American Protestantism (for this he relies on the work of people like Harold Bloom and Philip J. Lee).

How? First, the individualism appeals. Who needs doctrine when all that matters is the "spark of the divine" within me? Experience triumphs everything! Of course, individualism can morph quickly into narcissism. And most religious Americans think that, hey-presto, they are going straight to heaven when they die. Fundamentalists think that all they need do is say that Jesus is their personal savior (note "personal"- that individual thing again) and they are saved. This is more like reuniting the "spark of the divine" with God than anything underpinning historical Christianity. How many people claim to be "spiritual, but not religious"? Then there is the fixation on conspiracy theories and cover-ups, alongside the postmodern disdain for the notion of objective truth.

And there is a more sinister side. The dualism that underpins Gnosticism feeds the dualism that operates in much of recent American foreign policy, dividing the world into good and evil. Classic Gnostic elitism enters the picture too, in that America is seen as unique, specially blessed by God, and not constrained by the same rules and constraints as other countries. Hence Americans are rich because God made them rich and Americans can impose their will on the rest of the "unenlightened" world. And if creation is not fundamentally good and in need of renewal, then why should be it not exploited through violence and environmental degradation? I wonder how many liberal commentators, obsessed with the evils of Christian dogma, realize that much of what they despise is actually a bastardized form of their beloved Gnosticism, with little connection to the universal liberating message of Jesus the Christ, whose memory is preserved more accurately in the institutional church than elsewhere?

Finally, although Wright does not address it, it is important to note that many of the religions created in the United States and basically Gnostic in nature. Remember the suicide cult that thought they would end up on the spaceship? Mormonism holds that humans can one day be Gods, with their own planets! Just look at Scientology: it maintains that inside every person is a thetan, an alien creature yearning to escape, and that only a special secret knowledge will allow the person to understand and exploit this reality. This is nothing more than Gnosticism dressed up in cheap science fiction clothing, with, of course, the classic American refinement of uninhibited individualism approaching narcissism. This is what it boils down to then: Pope Benedict and Mother Teresa versus George Bush and Tom Cruise? Not such a hard decision...


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

There are some flaws in your observations. For one thing, you assume that the martyrs of the early Church were orthodox. Orthodoxy wasn't established as the "One True Holy and Apostolic Church" until the 4th century. What the Nicene Council called "heresy" was actually mainstream Christianity.

Another flaw is the assertion that ancient gnosticism was anti-Semitic because it presented a dim view of Yahweh. That's like saying that Democrats are anti-American because they present a dim view of George Bush.

On the other hand, orthodox writings are full of vicious vitriol against Jews and Judaism. The Gnostic texts are free of such truly anti-Semitic diatribes.

Morning's Minion said...

Thanks for your comment!

The purpose of the Council of Nicea was to debate the issue of Arianism, the notion that Jesus was not "consubstantial" (Greek: homoousias) with the Father. Now, a charitable view would argue that in the chaotic world of the early church, these fine distinctions had not yet been worked out-- especially since they employed Greek philosophical terms of analysis. A less charitable view would say that the Arians wanted to see Jesus as the "son of God", not as the eternally-begotten Logos, but as some kind of super-saint, akin to Hercules being the "son of Zeus". As with the Gnostics, the Arians were more willing than the orthodox to make their peace with the Roman world.

But the Council of Nicea (and the subsequent Council of Contantinople, which tied up loose ends) had precious little to say about Gnosticism. It wasn't the issue. But your claim that Arianism was mainstream Christianity until Nicea is simply wrong. It had little traction beyond Alexandria and other eastern centers of learning. No, the prevailing view of the Church until then (as recounted in the gospels and Pauline letters) was the "homoousias" view i.e orthodoxy (most clearly stated in the opening to John's gospel). And only 3 out of about 300 bishops at Nicea refused to sign onto the Creed.

I also don't think the Bush analogy is correct. By declaring YHWH as evil and stupid, they are implicitly calling the followers of YHWH as evil and stupid. Remember, the concept of a church-state distinction was alien at that time.

Briefly on the anti-semitism: the fatal flaw of Pagels, Ehrman and others make in this regard is to transfer a nasty medieval anti-semitism (blood libels and all that) back to the first and second centuries. We must remember that Christianity began as a Jewish sect, and that was not appreciated by some other Jews! As a result, there were all kinds of conflicts, some vicious-- see Paul's views on circumcision versus the nascent Jewish church. So, yes, there would have been some intemperate language used, but of a wholly different nature to the viciousness of Middle Age ant-semitism.

Sophia Sadek said...

I agree that the faction of Arius was the principle "heresy" towards which the Nicene Creed was established, but it was not the only one. Although the Athanasian faction won the majority of bishops, the greater body of priests and congregants had been raised in a tradition that the Athanasians would consider heretical. (Of course, Athanasius was considered a heretic by the folks on the other side of the theological frontier.)

As for the anti-Semitism of the orthodox faith, Augustine and a number of his predecessors actively promoted the idea that the "Jews" in general were responsible for the crucifixion. That's more inflammatory than saying that Yahweh is not the same god as the Father of the heavens mentioned in Psalms 82 (the Gnostic perspective of the Father of Christ).